Leaving Certainty Unexamined: An Academic Freedom Interview with Sociology Professor Ilana Redstone

Aug 24, 2023 | Interviews

Leaving Certainty Unexamined: An Academic Freedom Interview with Sociology Professor Ilana Redstone

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Ilana Redstone is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also the Faculty Director of the Mill Institute at UATX. Professor Redstone obtained her PhD in Demography and Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2020 she coauthored an Oxford University Press work titled, Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education. Redstone is among the original 217 founding members of the Academic Freedom Alliance and serves on the AFA’s Membership Committee. In this brief interview I was able to get the professor’s concerns about the current state of academic freedom, an idea Redstone calls “The Certainty Trap,” as well as her thoughts on polarization and the benefits of viewpoint diversity. 

HM: Can you describe for our readers why you were attracted to the AFA, your major concerns about the state of academic freedom, and why its protection is so important for higher education.

IR: Academic freedom faces challenges from inside higher education as well as from outside. And, in some ways, the two differ systematically from one another. I’m not the first person to make this observation, but challenges originating outside academia tend to come from the political right while those originating inside tend to come from the political left. Without making a claim of symmetry, the two share a broad unwillingness to think openly and to challenge ideas. Each wants to take particular viewpoints, beliefs, values, and principles off the table for criticism and questioning. However, there’s really no way to do this without making the line that separates what’s in from what’s out arbitrarily placed. The absence of a line separating what’s in from what’s out is necessary for academic freedom to flourish, but it also raises some interesting and difficult questions. For instance, if no ideas are off the table, do we have to teach intelligent design in addition to evolution? But, being open doesn’t mean that any explanation—whether we’re talking about evolution or anything else—has an equal probability of being true. As I see it, it is only by committing to exploring all ideas that we can we fulfill higher education’s mission to advance knowledge in a coherent and intellectually honest manner. 

HM: You hold the position of Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You have published numerous works that include something you call “The Certainty Trap.” Can you describe this concept for our readers and perhaps explain how it relates to the current challenges to academic freedom?

IR: Much of the political polarization, self-censorship, and challenges to academic freedom that we see has to do with the way we think about complex social problems. Too often, we view them as overly simplistic—a perspective that then gives us permission to assess our ideological opponents with pity, contempt, or disdain. What we often fail to realize is that, when we judge harshly, demonize, and dismiss people whose views we disagree with, certainty is what’s driving us to do so. And by certainty, I mean a value, belief, or principle that we’re treating as inviolable. But, when it comes to contentious political issues, leaving this certainty unexamined drives us apart. 

There are two ways to avoid the Certainty Trap. One is to recognize the fundamental uncertainty in the world around us—in what we know, especially when it comes to causes, effects, and tradeoffs. As I said earlier, recognizing uncertainty isn’t the same thing as saying all explanations are created equal. It’s more of a reminder of the importance of probabilistic thinking. The other way to avoid the Certainty Trap is to commit to clarity and precision in our principles, values, and beliefs—while at the same time understanding that none is exempt from criticism, questioning, and examination. This second option is why avoiding certainty is a practical, not a moral strategy. We can declare policies, or principles for that matter, as better or worse—provided we’re clear about what better and worse mean. 

HM: As a follow up to the prior question, you have researched and published on political polarization—its causes and effects.  Political divisions and partisan angst are certainly nothing new, yet many scholars contend that there are distinguishing characteristics that accompany the modern versions.  My question is this, what role could academic freedom play in lowering the temperature with this growing divide?

IR: Academic freedom, when internalized, should embody and reflect the practice of naming and questioning our beliefs and values. Higher education should model the idea that no idea, value, belief, or claim gets a free pass. And that includes the ideas, values, beliefs, and claims that are cherished within the institution itself. 

Put simply, democracy is rooted in the idea that people are, on balance, reasonable. That we generally have reasons and justifications for our opinions and that we can communicate them to one another. However, it appears that some people either no longer think this is true or we’ve forgotten it. This is apparent in the tenor of our national political discourse—and why I teach a course called Bigots and Snowflakes. After all, in many cases, that’s all we are to one another.

HM: Are you optimistic that attitudes toward viewpoint diversity will get better?  What role should a group such as the AFA play in advancing solutions?

IR: I am cautiously optimistic. In my experience working with students, I find them to be quite open to not only challenging the thinking of other people, but to challenging their own as well. It may be that the approach I take is easier to digest because I’m not telling anyone to change their mind about anything. I’m not trying to convince anyone that I alone possess the answers to complex social problems. Rather, I’m doing my best to help them understand and remember that the things we care about the most tend to be morally and ethically complex. And, by extension, that when we fail to see this, we judge harshly, demonize, and dismiss—with all the consequences that those behaviors bring. This includes condemning others based on assumptions we make about the person’s character. While doing this might feel righteous and good in the moment, it fosters precisely the kinds of things we’re saying here that we don’t want, including political polarization.

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